Monday, December 01, 2014

Honest Jim vs the PC Mafia

James Watson, the famously cranky discoverer of the structure of DNA, is auctioning off his Nobel medal, claiming that he needs the money. He is 86, and probably made a lot of money in his life, between authorship of one of the justifiably most famous popular science books of all time and several very popular textbooks. He got into some trouble a few years back when his habit of speaking his mind ran into the central religious dogmas of our time, when he ventured that he worried that the persistent racial differences on IQ tests might reflect real differences in intellectual capability.

My favorite crackpot has mounted a stirring if hardly effective defense of Watson. My first link, above, takes the opposite tack. Laura Helmuth, who apparently is Slate's Science and Health editor, launches a passionately wrongheaded attack on Watson. It's preposterous that someone with such anti-scientific views can be the Science editor of a major publication, but such is the conventional religion (PC, unreformed) of our times.

She has a long list of Watson's crimes, which include dissing Rosalyn Franklin (the key investigator whose crucial x-ray diffraction pictures led Watson and Crick to the structure of DNA, but who died before Nobels were handed out), Ed Wilson, women, and fat people. Watson is and has been opinionated and rude, but his capital crime, in Helmuth's analysis, was believing that the measurements which consistently show racial differences might be real. Helmuth:

And, of course, Watson fundamentally misunderstands research on race, genes, and intelligence. Scientists have been debunking ideas like his since well before The Bell Curve made a mockery of statistical analysis.

Of course it is Helmuth who misunderstands. It is true that the subject remains highly controversial, but no one has ever "debunked" the data. One may, possibly, explain or rationalize it away, but those explanations and rationalizations remain unproven at present, while the data remains.

I'm not trying to argue that Watson is right here - I suspect that he may not be. I'm saying that what he says is perfectly scientifically defensible, even if it is socially very inconvenient.

So Watson's crime, which Helmuth apparently regards as worthy of eternal damnation, is being rude and obnoxious and speaking what may well be an inconvenient truth.